• Carla Barrow, LMFT

Politically Diverse Couples - What Do We Do Now?



If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve seen some historic events unfolding. Politics is in motion, and what we’ve seen may be just the tip of the iceberg. While some individuals are kicking their heels with excitement and doubling down efforts to push for more change, others are gnashing their teeth with frustration and mobilizing for alternate rebellion.

I know. I live in a purple family. We all still talk to each other, and thus far have managed holidays and celebrations without warfare, but it hasn’t always been comfortable. There have been some walk-outs (particularly where alcohol fueled debate) and some shut-downs (conversations halted to keep the peace), but so far nobody to my knowledge has been banished or cut off forever.

We are not alone in navigating the tension. A Wakefield Market Research Report from 2017 found that, since the 2016 Presidential election, there was a marked increase in relationship break-ups caused by political differences. They estimated that 11% of Americans ended a romance because of politics.

Political science researchers at four universities also found that political debate has become more “dehumanizing” and that politically mixed couples can begin to think of their partner as less evolved in their thinking. This can happen even with same party couples where one spouse questions the other’s political loyalty because it’s not quite left or right enough – for example, where one spouse is an “anyone but Trump” Republican; or, in my case, when I play devil’s advocate with my husband, suggesting acceptance of at least a part of an opposing viewpoint.

So, what’s a couple to do?

For assistance with that question, I turned to Psychotherapist Jeanne Safer’s recommendations in I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics. Safer has lived 40 years in a politically mixed marriage and written and spoken on the topic extensively, including with her Republican husband. Her 2019 book includes numerous vignettes based on 50 interviews with couples from a myriad of relational configurations (couples/parents/siblings/friends), so that there’s something for almost anyone struggling with negative political override.

Some of my key takeaways from Safer’s work are listed below. They are integrated with lessons from my learning as a marriage and family therapist trained in Gottman Couples Counseling (Level III). My hope is these pointers will show you that not all political gridlock leads to separation and divide. Perhaps, with the tips, you will find ways to turn away from the political poison in your relationship, toward a more satiating antidote.

Seek First to Understand. Notice You are Not in Control.

Safer asks each of us to deeply consider what shapes our own political attitudes, and to willingly understand enough about the makeup of our partner, to see that factors shape the dynamics of their political discourse. She suggests that the worst political rifts stem from our attempts to control and rewrite our partners’ opinions and political views, rather than co-exist with them.

In her own politically diverse marriage, Safer learned to focus on her husband’s day-to-day actions (being kind, helping family and friends, expressing concern for others), rather than his political slogans, to remind herself why she valued their union. She offers up the “chemotherapy” test (How would your partner be with you or a loved one struggling with cancer? If empathic in this situation, are they really a political monster?).

Drop the Compulsion to Force Change.

Safer suggests that most political fights in intimate relationships are not about politics but about our personal compulsion to change dissimilar views to align with our own. If, however, we challenge ourselves to listen for insight, without first commanding change from our partner, poisonous beliefs about each other may settle long enough to escape what Safer calls “compulsive political fighting.” After all, the differences at play likely preceded political events since 2016 and will endure long after.

Safer invites readers to give up an agenda of convincing, changing, and recruiting others to our political perspective, adopting instead a paradigm of civility, where we can listen beyond political buzzwords to the values, beliefs, fears and experiences that underlie our partner’s opposing views.

Listen, Even Beyond the Trigger Point.

Although Safer contends there are few marital resources or interventions available for politically turbulent couples, I find the principles of Gottman Couples therapy easily adaptable to Safer’s recommendations. Two such interventions which come to mind are the Gottman Listening Exercise, and a somewhat similar exercise called the Gottman-Rapoport intervention.

In an article written shortly after Trump was elected President in 2016, Dr. Juli Gottman, alluded to of the primary elements of the Gottman-Rapoport intervention to avoid political “othering” in the State of Our Union article:

“We have to listen without jumping down each other’s throats. Really listen. What have they experienced? What have they suffered? Why are they so angry? And even more important, what is their greatest fear? For it is fear that has driven this election. Fear of job loss and poverty, fear of being out-paced, out-educated, out-smarted, out-tech-ed, out-majority-ed, out-numbered, out-classed, out-holy-ed, out-gendered, out-colored, out-powered. So many fears. Fear leads us to pull inwards. To duck our heads in ignorance and cover it all up with anger.

Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I do believe the only way forward is to listen, and “listen good.” Listen to “other,” and not just the ones we resemble. Listen until it breaks our hearts. Listen to the pain, the fear, the drowning. Ask questions. Pay attention. And only when we’ve deeply understood the “other,” whoever he or she is, brings up our own ideas to consider.”

Regulate Emotional Responses and Establish Limits.

In moving from Listening to Dialoguing about political hot potatoes, Safer prescribes common sense strategies such as monitoring and regulating our emotional responses. This can mean being conscious of our tones of voice, how much alcohol we’ve drank, and timing.

We also need to realize that what often comes out most hostilely (and I would add, impulsively) in political fights are unmet emotional needs of the past. When masked in political rhetoric, such triggers can be explosive in the relationship, but when unpacked and dealt with as personal values, aspirations or fears, the topics can be more approachable, and feel less like walking through a landmine.

Gottman Couples therapy offers an elegant tool called Dreams Within Conflict that addresses precisely these areas. Typically, once we’ve worked through the exercise, couples are better able to articulate areas where they can or cannot negotiate. From there, a politically divided couple may fashion rules of (dis)engagement to suit their tolerances.

  • Speak for Yourself. In Gottman Couples therapy terms, we identify hostile, rude, “better than thou” communications as contempt, the most dangerous among four communication strategies (the Four Horsemen) that destroy marriages. The others include criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling, which also prevail in political communication breakdowns. To counter contempt, we suggest that